In Mark 3 Jesus goes up the mountain, and calls twelve apostles. He authorises them for two tasks: to announce the good news, and to cast out demons. Of course the two tasks are related: the message is that the kingdom of God is coming in power, bringing release from sin and Satan. Exorcism is a natural expression and sign of this new state of affairs.
In the West, we feel comfortable with half of the apostolic ministry, but not the other half. Teaching stuff is ok, spirit stuff is not.
In our tradition, since the early centuries of the Roman church, the Holy Spirit’s role has been minimised. Father and Son have usually been to the fore, sometimes the faith has seemed to teach a Duad or Binity. Power tended to be seen as invested in the church and her priests, rather than in the transcendent movements of the Spirit. The gospel was felt to need to authorising stamp of the state. One symptom of this Binitarian tendency is that Jesus’ death has always been invested with more theological significance than his resurrection.
The Reformation put the spotlight on the church’s teachings, especially regarding justification. Justification was now seen to be the action of God through Christ towards those who believed the message. Where the Roman church taught justification as a result of the Spirit’s transforming work, for Protestants justification had nothing to do with anything in us: i.e. the Spirit had little role in justification. In other words, the traditional biases of the Western church were not challenged but rather reinforced. The authority of the sacramental priests became the authority of the teachers. Father, Son and teaching were given primacy. The Spirit was minimised again. One symptom of this is that Protestants in general have found it comes naturally to listen and read, but not to pray.
There is a gnostic tendency in all this: we in the West have always liked the idea of a message which is powerful, in and of itself, to bring us to a place of enlightenment and salvation. If we can learn and know the hidden truth, we can attain eternal life.
Ironically, this emphasis on the role of teaching to the neglect of Pentecost left the church open to having its message challenged. For if the message is powerful in itself, then why couldn’t a different message also be powerful? – perhaps even more powerful. Just as the Reformation had challenged the Roman church’s teaching, so at the Enlightenment rival messages infiltrated the faith: ideas of progress and the evolution of Man towards Utopia. Having cast out the old pagan demons, the Western church had failed to embrace the living sovereign person of the Holy Spirit: so the Spirit of Man and the Spirit of History came in to fill up the void. New priests arose to challenge the authority of the old Christian ones. Now modern ideas and modern education were seen as the best way to enlightenment and freedom. They still are.
Notice that although the content of the message has shifted profoundly, the structure of thought has remained the same: we are still looking to a teaching that can of itself empower and save us. The West is still gnostic in orientation.
Where the apostles might have challenged these rival teachings in terms of a demonstration of power and of the Spirit, the best the Western church has been able to do is to claim its teaching is better, truer than the Enlightenment doctrine: an abstract claim that is hard to prove.
The Eastern church, always more clearly Trinitarian than us, did not experience an equivalent overthrow.
This sort of psycho-theological analysis of our tradition is not easy to prove. Much of the trouble goes on below the surface of consciousness: everyone always subscribed to Trinitarian doctrine and thought prayer was important. No doubt some readers will be saying, ‘But Calvin taught the Holy Spirit’. (True, he did!) But on the large scale, the signs are there, the emphases are there, and the result in our Western culture is plain for all to see. We are the only civilisation to have developed a thorough-going atheism.
In Mark 3 Jesus sends out messengers to teach and cast out demons. To bring the light of truth authenticated by the power of God. ‘If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Matt 12). I wonder how we in the West can overcome our age-old unease about the Holy Spirit, and reclaim our Trinitarian gospel heritage? In an age when our message is no longer the default belief of our society, that might kinda come in handy?